Do you think your dog can be a therapy or service dog?

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By Dr. Parker T. Barker

I am fortunate enough to have met many wonderful therapy and service dogs in my travels and they tell me how their work is so rewarding for them as well as for their owners. But if this interests you, where do you start? My advice to potential therapy dog owners is don’t even think about it unless their dog is completely “solid.” Not solid from a physical frame stand point, but from a personality and temperament perspective. A therapy dog must be willing to work, and have a great love of all people PLUS a super high tolerance for human unpredictibleness, if that is a word.

 see: http://www.army.mil/-news/2008/06/27/10451-dogs-help-wounded-warriors-heal-at-walter-reed/
Deuce, a therapy dog at Walter Reed, and his owner Harvey Naranjo greet Sgt. 1st Class Andrew R. Allman, one of the patients at the occupational therapy gym. Deuce helps with patients’ therapies, but his main job is to make them feel better. Photo by Elizabeth M. Lorge.

And owners have requirements too. They need to be willing to devote an hour or two a week to take their therapy dog to places such as hospitals, nursing homes, or institutions – anyplace that allows therapy dogs that your certifying organization asks you to visit. The other common element I have noticed is that therapy dog owners love to talk with others about their dogs. If this is something you enjoy, and you have the time for some community service, you are on the right road.

Some dogs choose to get their Canine Good Citizen (CGC) certificate to facilitate their training. Given by the American Kennel Club, the CGC certificate is recognized as the gold standard for dog behavior. It means you are a responsible owner and your dog is well-mannered. This is particularly helpful as an early step for the “Bully” breeds which we all know can be total pussycats, sorry Percy.

But getting a CGC certificate is not a therapy dog qualification test. You must still pass an in-person test by the certifying organization which looks at how the dog behaves as well as how you control your dog.

There are several local organizations offer therapy dog training; some are national in scope and some are truly local. In Beaufort, check out Therapy Dogs Inc. and Pet Partners (formerly Delta Society) who are two of the several organizations operating in the Lowcountry. Although these organizations all have different requirements for certifying a therapy dog, here are some of the most common requirements you may run across:

  • Dogs must be more than 12 months old and under 10 years old with excellent manners.
  • Dogs will probably be required to be fully vaccinated for the following canine diseases (your Vet will have to provide vaccination information): Canine Distemper, Infectious Canine Hepatitis, Canine Parvovirus, Canine Cough (Bordatella bronchseptica and Adenvirus Type 2).
  • Dogs may be required to be on heartworm preventative medication and treated regularly for internal and external parasites.
  • You will be required to have your Vet conduct a health screening test on your dog to determine their suitability to visit physically.
  • Retesting of qualified therapy dogs may be required every two years.
  • Volunteers may have to complete a training session and/or an orientation.
  • You will need your own transportation to travel to your facility each visit.
  • As a volunteer, you may need to pass a police check or a background check.
  • There may be fees involved for training, certification and other checks required.

What do you get out of this kind of volunteer work? It is hard to describe what goes through your mind when you see your pet snuggle with a child who has cancer or plop their head on the knee of a senior citizen who can’t get around well any more. This is one of those great things where you definitely get back much more than you can ever invest. It is so worth the time and effort to have a certified therapy dog. As the old commercial said, “Try it, you’ll like it!”